COP25: Diet changes will be the key to reducing the harmful impacts of climate change

The COP25 climate change summit, currently taking place in Madrid, has laid out key issues for the future of the planet. A new perspective on land management is the key says the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). The world of politics controls the management of natural resources, so it is vital that scientists speak out about what must be done, for the good of the planet.

This is no longer a debate on the ways to reverse or stop climate change, the world is almost at crisis point. Conversations focus more specifically on how we must adapt behaviours to help reduce the coming inevitable impacts of climate change on our earth. 

An important aspect of COP25 is reviewing and updating the climate commitments outlined in the Paris Agreement (2015). It is the last formal opportunity to make modifications to these commitments, as actions will commence in January 2020. 

December 4 was dedicated to discussing the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Special Report on Climate Change and Land, published in August 2019.

The IPCC reports states, the world must change their dietary habits significantly by 2050 if there is to be any chance of mitigating climate change. This is referring directly to the use of land for agricultural purposes across the word.  

The following is a summary of the issues discussed during the summit.

The importance of soil

From the pre-industrial period to the beginning of the millennium (1850-2000), scientists estimate that the concentration of CO2, one of the main greenhouse gases, has increased by 30%.

Agriculture, forestry and other land use activities accounted for 23% of total net man-made greenhouse gas emissions during 2007-2016. When pre- and post-production activity in the food system are included, that rises to up to 37%.

IPCC report states: agriculture, forestry and other land use activities account for about 13% of CO2, 44% of methane (CH4) and 81% of nitrous oxide (N2O) emissions from human activities worldwide during the period 2007-2016..

How we use land and aggregate soil will reduce or accentuate global warming and affect the intensity, frequency and duration of extreme weather events.

Hans-Otto Pörtner
Hans-OttoPörtner, president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, during the presentation at COP25 in Madrid.

A vicious circle

The IPCC reports focuses on how climate change affects soil conditions and how these conditions, as a result, aggravate the climate problem - which turns into a vicious circle of destruction.

As global temperature increases, desertification begins. Desertification is a term used to describe fertile land that becomes literal ‘desert’ - land with no vegetation coverage. This is typically as a result of drought, deforestation, or excessive agriculture.

Desertification of land releases oxygen to the environment due to photosynthesis and as a result increases the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. It also increases the risk of forest fires, which are another important source of atmospheric CO2.

Summary: soil and climate change, what’s the correlation?

  • The probability, intensity and duration of many extreme weather events can be significantly modified by changing the way that land is used and how soil is manipulated. 

  • Changes in land conditions can affect temperature and rainfall in regions hundreds of kilometres away.

  • Drier soil conditions as a result of climate change can increase the severity of heat waves.

  • Desertification amplifies global warming through the release of CO2 associated with decreased vegetation cover.

 

Desertification

One of the major concerns of the IPCC regarding soil is desertification, which intensifies global warming through the release of CO2, as a result of decreased vegetation cover (deforestation). The report states: "Avoiding, reducing and reversing desertification would improve soil fertility, increase carbon storage in soils and biomass, while benefiting agricultural productivity and food security. 

"Preventing desertification is preferable to attempting to restore degraded land; the latter could lead to residual risks and unsuitable outcomes”.

Adaptation and mitigation

‘Adaptation’ and ‘mitigation’ are two concepts that are frequently repeated in relation to climate change. Adaptation, in reference to knowing how to anticipate climatic conditions. Mitigation, in the sense of limiting the impact of climate change as much as possible: specifically in relation to what can be controlled by humans. As far as soil is concerned, there needs to be some serious reconsideration as to the ways that humans use soil. Crop and livestock activities must be adapted, 2050 is the deadline. Solutions must be implemented NOW. 

What we eat matters: reduce meat and dairy consumption to help fight climate change

If we want to limit global warming to 1.5ºC, there must be changes made in the ways that land is used. Reforestation, afforestation (planting trees and seeds to create a forest), reduced deforestation and bioenergy are absolutely vital. This calls for big changes to farming. Livestock currently use a third of global cropland and contribute 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Red meat is understood to have the biggest impact when it comes to emissions. 

The IPCC recommend that those who eat a lot of meat consider a “flexitarian” diet. This diet is largely made-up of fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and unsaturated oils. It includes high-quality meat, dairy and sugar, but in quantities far lower than are currently consumed in first world societies.

If positive climate changes are made, this could reduce the devastating consequences of desertification and degradation.

There are three vital points that will have the biggest impact on climate change for our work:

  1. Dietary changes and choices (ensuring people opt for plant-based diets, reduce meat and dairy and choosing sustainable agriculture) 

  2. Food waste reduction

  3. Enabling more sustainable land use management. 

The combination of these three action points outlined by the IPCC will contribute to adaptation to climate change, reducing land degradation, desertification and poverty, as well as improving public health. Action must be taken. 

More information: 

IPCC, 2019: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change and Land: an IPCC special report on climate change, desertification, land degradation, sustainable land management, food security, and greenhouse gas fluxes in terrestrial ecosystems [P.R. Shukla, J. Skea, E. Calvo Buendia, V. Masson-Delmotte, H.- O. Pörtner, D. C. Roberts, P. Zhai, R. Slade, S. Connors, R. van Diemen, M. Ferrat, E. Haughey, S. Luz, S. Neogi, M. Pathak, J. Petzold, J. Portugal Pereira, P. Vyas, E. Huntley, K. Kissick, M. Belkacemi, J. Malley, (eds.)].

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